Carleton plays big role in growing women’s basketball in Canada

A large number of people from across Chatham-Kent came to Toronto to see Chatham’s Bridget Carleton take part in the first WNBA game ever held in Canada, Many wore her number six Minnesota Lynx jersey. (Photo by Dave Gough)

By Dave Gough

Bridget Carleton just played a big role in an event that, if leveraged correctly, will help substantially grow women’s basketball across Canada.

Carleton was in the spotlight this past weekend as the only Canadian player to play in the first WNBA preseason game in Canada.

Carleton is going into her fifth year in the WNBA. Prior to playing for the Minnesota Lynx, she had a stellar NCAA career with Iowa State and is also currently a member of Team Canada.

Carleton recently led Canada to the semifinals of the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, and was named to the tournament all-star team and led Canada in scoring. She also played on Canada’s 2020 women’s Olympic basketball team.

Growing up in Chatham, Carleton had her mom Carrie as a sporting role model. She played college basketball and was named to Division II All-American teams in her last two years at Grand Valley State in Michigan. Following her playing career, Carrie was inducted into the GVSU Hall of Fame, as well as the Chatham Sports Hall of Fame.

Carleton was fortunate enough to get inspiration from her mom, but for a lot of Canadian women who play basketball, the WNBA or even high-level basketball is not something they get to see on a regular basis. To grow the game, people need to see it up close.

“It’s one thing to know WNBA and it’s another thing to see it,” Carleton said. “I think to go to a (WNBA) game, as a kid, it’s just so inspiring and that can be so many different things to so many people — to know that you can do so many things through sport.”

The John McGregor Secondary School grad has been an inspiration to young basketball players across Chatham-Kent for years.

Although Carleton is just a couple of years older than Chatham twins Logan and Jana Kucera, her accomplishments have been an inspiration for them, as they had stellar four-year basketball careers at St. Clair College before moving on to play professionally in Europe.

“Knowing Bridget and playing against her in high school, it’s pretty cool inspiration and motivation to watch her and all the hard work she has put into basketball the last 10 years,” said Logan.

“(Bridget) is the definition of someone that never gives up, keeps working hard, goes above and beyond and volunteers in the community and gives back to the community. So to have all of Chatham here today is just an incredible experience,” said Jana.

Watching a player from their hometown play in a sold-out Scotiabank Arena is something the Kucera sisters said they will never forget.

“We always live for moments like these,” said Jana. “Women in sport, and women in basketball specifically, has been going above and beyond the past couple of years, so for it to finally arrive here in Canada is amazing.”

The Kucera’s said having a packed arena will make a statement and pave the way for a future WNBA team in Toronto.

Carleton was a perfect ambassador last weekend for working towards growing the game in Canada. Media commented on how Carleton was smart and fun, and her infectious smile along with her passion for the game made her the ideal person to promote the game. She took part in every available media session, she threw out the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game, and gave a speech just before the game to the sold-out crowd on Saturday, which received a standing ovation.

“I think it’s time that we show them that Canada is not just a hockey country, we’re passionate about basketball too,” she told the crowd.

The growth of men’s basketball exploded in Canada about 15-20 years ago. A total of 24 Canadians were on NBA rosters this past season. When the Raptors became an NBA franchise in 1995 there were only two Canadians in the NBA.

A large part of the growth was due to the Raptors, but credit should also go to the first Raptors superstar Vince Carter and hall-of-fame player Steve Nash for growing the game in Canada. People could see the game up close, and it has resulted in more Canadian men playing NCAA basketball, and then moving onto the professional ranks.

After last weekend’s WNBA game, women’s basketball could be poised for further growth in the next decade.

A cynic would point to last weekend’s game and say it was a one-off event and was just a pre-season game.

But the game, with its young crowd, hype and message could be the impetus of something much larger down the road. It could be the spark for a WNBA team in Toronto in the next couple of years. It could lead to more exposure for the Team Canada women’s basketball program and a medal at the next Olympics.

And it could lead to the strengthening of grassroots basketball programs across the country as more young women aim to become the next Bridget Carleton.

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